Organized by Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March was a march on Washington for black men. The purposed was a reclaiming of roles that some leaders felt had been taken from black men (both through institutional racism and by their own choices). Farrakhan was always a rather controversial figure (mainly due to his tendency towards anti-semitism). But back in the 1990’s he was still seen as a leader for many black Americans.
In 1996, Spike Lee directed a film that chose to explore what was behind the drive for the men who attended. And what Get on the Bus tells us is…It’s Complicated.
Get on the Bus follows several men on a chartered bus ride to attend the Million Man March. The passengers include Evans Sr. and his son “Smooth”, who are (due to a court order) chained together (Lee and writer Reggie Rock Bythewood were not being subtle there). There is Flip, an ego driven and boisterous actor. Xavier is an aspiring director making a documentary. Jamal and Randall are a gay couple whose relationship is at an impasse. And Pops is the sixties radical who seeks to inspire the young men around him.
Spike explores some of the more obvious areas of white racism against the black community. This is highlighted in a sequence with the lone white character in the film, a substitute driver played by Richard Belzer. It is a well done scene because you can both sympathize with Belzer’s Rick and yet cringe as he stumbles through a myriad of attempts to offer a defense. And Charles Dutton’s George (who works with Rick) takes some pity and steps in to defend him and get the others to back off.
But Lee also does not hesitate to turn the camera on issues specific to the black community. There are arguments regarding parenting, the treatment of black women, what it means to be black (one character, Roger, who had a white mother, has his “black cred” challenged). And Lee takes on homophobia among black men pretty directly.
But really, the heart of the film is in both Evan Sr. and his son Smooth and then Pops. Pops is that guy for whom the March is a chance to reclaim those days of past. Days of revolution and the marches for Civil Rights. Offering words of wisdom, he quietly connects himself to these men, resulting in a moment where the men must put aside their differences, their egos and anger to unite. Evan Sr. is a man who knows he has let his son down and desperately wants to correct this.
Get on the Bus could have been unbearably preacher in lesser hands. And I do not mean just Lee here. The cast is excellent. Charles S. Dutton is perfectly cast as the jovial George, who is exuberant in bringing these men together for something he hopes to be a life changing event. Dutton has a friendly authority throughout the film. Andre Braugher is irritating as the boastful Flip…but that is the point. You are never really meant to see his side. He is the selfish man, going to the March more for the image he thinks it will project than any more noble reasons.
Probably the weakest sequence is the over the top Republican character. This is not the fault of actor Wendell Pierce, but rather the fact that the character is less a character and a diversionary gag.
Get on the Bus feels as relevant and challenging today as it was back in 1996.